Authors: Donald Davie

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English poet and critic

Author Works


Brides of Reason, 1955

A Winter Talent, and Other Poems, 1957

The Forests of Lithuania, 1959

A Sequence for Francis Parkman, 1961

New and Selected Poems, 1961

Events and Wisdoms: Poems, 1957-1963, 1964

Essex Poems, 1963-1967, 1969

Six Epistles to Eva Hesse, 1970

Collected Poems, 1950-1970, 1972

The Shires, 1974

In the Stopping Train, and Other Poems, 1977

“Three for Water-Music” and “The Shires,” 1981

The Battered Wife, and Other Poems, 1982

Collected Poems, 1970-1983, 1983

To Scorch or Freeze: Poems About the Sacred, 1988

Poems and Melodramas, 1996

Selected Poems, 1997

Collected Poems, 2002 (Neil Powell, editor)


Purity of Diction in English Verse, 1952

Articulate Energy: An Enquiry into the Syntax of English Poetry, 1955

The Language of Science and the Language of Literature, 1700-1740, 1963

Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor, 1964

Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, 1972

Pound, 1975

The Poet in the Imaginary Museum: Essays of Two Decades, 1977 (Barry Alpert, editor)

AGathered Church: The Literature of the English Dissenting Interest, 1700-1930, 1978

Trying to Explain, 1979

Kenneth Allott and the Thirties, 1980

English Hymnology in the Eighteenth Century: Papers Read at a Clark Library Seminar, 5 March 1977, 1980

Dissentient Voice: The Ward and Phillips Lectures for 1980 with Some Related Pieces, 1982

These the Companions: Reflections, 1982

Czesław Miłosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric, 1986

Under Briggflatts: A History of Poetry in Great Britain, 1960-1988, 1989

Slavic Excursions: Essays on Russian and Polish Literature, 1990

Old Masters: Essays and Reflections on English and American Literature, 1992

The Eighteenth-Century Hymn in English, 1993

Essays in Dissent: Church, Chapel, and the Unitarian Conspiracy, 1995

With the Grain: Essays on Thomas Hardy and Modern British Poetry, 1998 (Clive Wilmer, editor)

Two Ways Out of Whitman, 2000 (Doreen Davie, editor)


The Poems of Doctor Zhivago, 1965 (of Boris Pasternak)

Edited Texts:

The Late Augustans: Longer Poems of the Eighteenth Century, 1958

Pasternak: Modern Judgments, 1969 (with Angela Livingstone)

Augustan Lyric, 1974

The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, 1981


The English poet, critic, editor, and translator Donald Alfred Davie was born the son of George Clarke Davie, a sergeant in a Scottish regiment, and Alice (Sugden) Davie, a schoolmistress who cultivated Davie’s predisposition for literary criticism by encouraging him to record the substance of every book he read. Donald Davie attended Cambridge University and joined the Royal Navy upon graduation. Assigned to Arctic Russia in World War II, he combated loneliness by reading the works of Robert Burns, Lord Byron, and Russian authors in translation. He later documented this period in These the Companions. In January, 1945, before going to India for the last months of the war, he married Doreen John.{$I[AN]9810001226}{$I[A]Davie, Donald}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Davie, Donald}{$I[tim]1922;Davie, Donald}

Donald Davie

After demobilization, Davie returned to Cambridge, where he began to learn the craft of poetry and corresponded with the American critic Yvor Winters, from whom he learned much about poetic rhythms. His review of an anthology by Winters in Poetry London is often viewed as the beginning of the Movement in English poetry. The Movement, a group of university-trained poets whose preference was for metrical verse, challenged the elitism of British culture.

Davie was an established critic before his first book of poems appeared. His first critical volume, The Purity of Diction in English Verse, draws parallels between the laws of syntax and the laws of society. Maintaining that the poet bears responsibility for purifying and correcting the spoken language, Davie finds virtue in eighteenth century Augustan poetry’s use of formal poetic structures and proselike syntax. In Articulate Energy, he argues the need for clarity, reason, and readability in modern verse, arguments consistent with those of other Movement poets in the 1950’s, notably Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, and Thom Gunn. Davie, an admirer of much contemporary verse, did not seek to ban poetic experimentation and verbal innovation; indeed, he was one of the principal champions in England of avant-garde American writers such as Charles Olson and Ed Dorn. Davie was, however, of the opinion that most poets did not have the ability to write truly innovative verse and that the ordinary syntax of the English language should thus be used as an instrument for writing urbane, literate verse that is accessible to all educated readers. Because of his reputation as a critic, Davie soon became the Movement’s most intellectual spokesman. Eschewing the symbolism and imagism characteristic of verse in the 1940’s, Davie called for intelligible, restrained poetry and for an improved social and moral content.

Davie’s most significant critical works are his two books on Ezra Pound, in which he praises Pound’s rhythmical and linguistic talents. These methodological studies consider Pound’s translations and their originals as well as difficult sections of Pound’s Cantos, which he elucidates. Although Davie ranked Pound as one of the great world poets, he was no apologist for Pound’s politics and the corrupting influence they brought to his work.

Davie began writing criticism to understand his own poems, and his early book of poetry, Brides of Reason, displays a classical formalism compatible with his criticism. In 1950, Davie began a seven-year self-imposed exile in Dublin, and his perspective of an Englishman living in Ireland prefigures the sectarian violence of subsequent decades.

In 1957, Davie made the first of many trips to the United States, resulting in the publication of A Sequence for Francis Parkman. Like his friend Charles Tomlinson (whom he called the most accomplished British poet of his generation), Davie made trips to North America to broaden his knowledge of the English language rather than to escape the stultifying world of British letters. Davie was a highly esteemed teacher and adviser to several generations of American poets and critics. His kinship with the United States prompted him over the years to accept various teaching positions there, including ones at Stanford and Vanderbilt.

Increasingly interested in Slavic literature, Davie wrote The Forests of Lithuania, his version of Adam Mickiewicz’s Polish romantic verse novel Pan Tadeusz (1834; English translation, 1917). Like Pound, Davie sought to condense a masterpiece worthy of emulation. Moreover, Pound had suggested that a poet should translate to improve his style; thus, to escape the rigors of metrical verse, Davie also translated the poems of Boris Pasternak. Essex Poems, written after Davie took up an important teaching and administrative position at the new University of Essex in the late 1960’s, contains several remarkable poems that at once exemplify and question Davie’s own mode of poetry; in this work, he subjects his personal practice to ruthless self-scrutiny. Poems such as “Excellence” are not just versified critical credos but also virtuoso examples of the poem as an exercise in mental alertness and vigilance.

Nostalgia and a sense of loss pervade The Shires, a collection of forty poems, one for each county in England. His following volume, In the Stopping Train, also addresses the England of yesteryear but displays a more relaxed, though still self-conscious, style. Its twenty-eight poems often employ a dialectical technique wherein Davie poses questions, then answers, then further questions and answers.

In A Gathered Church and Dissentient Voice Davie traces the literary and cultural implications of his religious dissent. In These the Companions, a personal literary memoir, he more clearly addresses the important influences on his literary career, particularly the influence of F. R. Leavis and Winters, whom he calls puritans, by which he means persons of unwavering principle for whom matters of morality and intellect are absolute. In The Poet in the Imaginary Museum, Davie attempts to vindicate his aestheticism by claiming that the poet can be an artificer or maker rather than a prophet or creator. Davie’s generally perceived conservatism–though as a working-class Yorkshireman he was never the standard-bearer of the elite–and his opposition to Soviet totalitarianism annoyed many critics. Those academics who would separate poetry and criticism have judged his verses pretentious or banal. He was, however, warmly received by many others, especially other Movement poets, who appreciated his unwillingness to condescend to readers. Gunn, for example, called Davie one of the best three English poets of his generation, and John Lucas wrote in New Statesman, “If poems were made solely of ideas there would be few more interesting poets than Donald Davie.”

To Scorch or Freeze, Davie’s final volume published before his death in 1995, goes beyond his earlier work. In this book, in which he rewrites the biblical Psalms in modern-day verse, Davie passionately affirms the beliefs of Christianity even as he examines the ways in which those beliefs affect the human soul in its most immediate thoughts and sensation. Davie’s poetry, long neglected in favor of his excellent criticism, rewards deeper study.

BibliographyDekker, George, ed. Donald Davie and the Responsibilities of Literature. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1983. Provides a good sampling of criticism on Davie.Everett, Barbara. “Poetry and Christianity.” London Review of Books, February 4-18, 1982, 5-7. Everett stresses the reticence of Davie’s poetry. Davie avoids strong displays of emotion, enabling him to concentrate on stylistic effects. At his best, as in Three for Water-Music, his poetry is superlative. He strongly emphasizes the values of the English countryside and defends an ideal of Christian civilization that he regards as in decline. Many of his best effects are understated and tacit, although he often begins a poem with a sharp phrase.Fowler, Alastair. A History of English Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987. Fowler relates Davie to the other Movement poets such as Robert Conquest and Philip Larkin. Davie’s poetry stresses local themes and avoids difficulty. The value of plain, strong syntax is rated very high by Davie, but less so, one gathers, by Fowler. Davie avoids foreign influences and adopts a no-nonsense attitude toward the problem of how poetry relates to the world. Fowler rates him below Larkin and appears to dislike the Movement poets.Kermode, Frank. An Appetite for Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989. Kermode notes a paradoxical side to Davie’s poetry. Davie adopts the view that the genuine tradition of English poetry is one stressing local values. Thomas Hardy exemplifies the correct manner of writing poetry, and T. S. Eliot is regarded as aberrant. Davie considers his own work part of a counterrevolution against the modernism of Ezra Pound and Eliot. Nevertheless, his poetry displays the influence of both of those poets. Kermode contends that Davie is more cosmopolitan than Philip Larkin.Powell, Neil. “Donald Davie, Dissentient Voice.” In British Poetry Since 1970: A Critical Survey, edited by Peter Jones et al. London: Persea Books, 1980. Powell notes that much of Davie’s poetry is concerned with his English audience. His move to California indicates a disillusion with England, and Essex Poems, 1963-1967 suffers from an undue display of anger toward his former country. In some instances, for example, in the sequence In the Stopping Train, Davie talks to himself. Often, the shifts between “I” and “he” are bewildering. At his best, Davie is forceful and clear.Ricks, Christopher. “Davie’s Pound.” New Statesman 69, no. 1779 (April 16, 1965): 610. Provides insights into Davie’s admiration for Ezra Pound.Rosenthal, M. L., and Sally McGall. The Modern Poetic Sequence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. The authors discuss in an illuminating way Davie’s display of emotion in his poetry. His mood is usually bleak and somber. Instead of adding lyrical meditations after his narrative, in the nineteenth century tradition, Davie emphasizes the subjective throughout his poems. A detailed discussion of “After the Accident,” an account of an automobile crash that nearly killed Davie and his wife, elucidates these points.Wright, Stuart T., comp. Donald Davie: A Checklist of His Writings, 1946-1988. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991. A comprehensive bibliography of Davie’s works.
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